A Simple Favor is precisely the film Paul Feig needed at this point in his directorial career. The filmmaker will always have an honored place in my personal pantheon thanks to his efforts on the practically perfect television series Freaks and Geeks, but his film career, though spotted with undeniable hits, has been spottier creatively. The main problem is one that has been pervasive in modern film comedy: a pronounced tendency to overstuff films with every last bit that might possibly induce someone somewhere to let out even the mildest chuckle. In the kindest appraisal, this approach represents a laudable generosity of spirit, but in execution it generally leads to movies that are unwieldy and ultimately deadened by the many stretches that feel extraneous or simply don’t work. In crafting A Simple Favor, Feig’s habit of undermining his own work is shunted aside by the unavoidable rigors of genre storytelling.
Based on a novel by Darcey Bell, A Simple Favor is a thriller, albeit one with a dewy film of satire upon it. The film follows Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a widowed single mother who comes across as an eager goody two-shoes in her New York bedroom community. She comes under the sway of Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), the mother of one of her son’s classmates. Emily is the opposite of Stephanie. She’s smooth, assertive, self-assured, happiest when downing potent martinis and assessing her environs with a sharpened tongue. Emily induces Stephanie to push against her own boundaries, even as she also starts leaning on the meeker mom to help address some domestic shortcomings, which stem from a mix of indifference and a demanding job in the city. At one point, Emily seeks some help, telling Stephanie she’s been called out of town at the same time her husband (Henry Golding) has been called to London to look after an ailing relative. And from there, the gears of potentially insidious happenings begin to grind.
By necessity, Feig brings a welcome discipline to his filmmaking, the demands of a Hitchcockian narrative (the adapted screenplay is credited to Jessica Sharzer) naturally cutting down on digressions, comic or otherwise. As his exploratory tomfoolery subsides, his visual sense strengthens. Shot by John Schwartzman, the film has a lithe elegance and a nimble visual wit. Feig can’t quite maintain his trickily entwined tone — part starkly serious, part sardonic — all the way to the end, in part because of the characters sometimes spin out as they try to make the turns necessary to keep up with the twisty plot. To that point, though, Feig has handled the complex, layered storytelling with admirable skill.
The individual who enjoys the clearest triumph in A Simple Favor, though, is Lively. Gifted with a vibrant, headstrong character, she instill a charisma so potent it’s like it was simmered on the low heat down to a thick reduction sauce. She cracks off barbed lines with perfection and surveys everyone around her with a scampish cunning. Before the major machinations of the plot engage, Lively has already injected thrills into the film strictly through the flinty force of her acting. Taking command of a film to that degree is definitely far from simple.